One name has emerged to the fore, dominating both the charts and the colorful and ever-changing world of Tollywood, where tunes are the driving force behind every box office success. Meet Hesham Abdul Wahab, the mastermind behind the captivating melodies that have evolved into anthems of love and emotion, from the alluring "Darshana" in ‘Hridayam’ to the heartfelt sounds of ‘Kushi’. Deccan Chronicle takes you on an intimate excursion into the musical odyssey of this composer and performer, whose path has rocked the business. He speaks to DC about his unique world, learnings, classical background, his surprising introduction to Tollywood, and his aspirations to push musical limits.
You have learnt Carnatic and Hindustani classical music. Does professional training help you with singing?
I have learnt both styles of music. But, my main forte is composing music, apart from singing. Both require some technical know-how. By the grace of God, I have always been given songs that suit my voice and singing style. My journey of learning is still ongoing. I continue taking classes in Carnatic. I learnt Hindustani initially during my school days. Since I learnt both styles, it helps, but it still depends on the kind of song you get to sing. If it's a classical or semi-classical song, an in-depth understanding of raga is required. Then, one definitely needs some focused classical training. But if it's a commercial song or has a pop culture, I don't think one needs exclusive classical training. But definitely, experience in singing is necessary. When it comes to composing, it all depends on the kind of story and director you're working with. Like, sometimes, a director will tell me to compose a song in a certain Ragam, then others might give me a song reference. So, all this depends on the kind of project one is in. But definitely, knowing any classical music—Western. Hindustani, Carnatic, Arabic, Spanish, Iranian or Armenian is always a good support for anyone.
Both 'Hridayam' and 'Kushi' were romantic. Are you consciously picking this genre?
No. These films came to me. I would always ask Vineeth Sreenivasan ('Hridyam' director) for an opportunity. And when he did give me the opportunity, I grabbed it. And with Shiva Garu ('Kushi' director), they came to me after listening to 'Hridayam'. Both are like maiden projects for me. So, I think it's too early for me to place myself in a position where I will only choose these kinds of films. It's also too early for people around me to place me in any category because I'm still exploring. I'm expanding, and the listener base is growing. The next three years are the most crucial for my musical career because 'Hridayam' paved the way for 'Kushi', and 'Kushi' to 'Hi Nanna', my next film featuring Nani. Every film is a growing stage.
Music is one of the USPs of 'Kushi'. Did you expect the music to become such a raging hit?
Definitely! When we composed every song, there was a kind of fire. I knew this song would do well. Most people have that intuition. I am someone who always trusts my gut. As my repertoire of work expands in the film industry and my experience grows, I trust my intuition more. So when I am composing a song with the directors, my heart will tell me this song has the right potential and the virality to touch many people. But having said this, other factors such as the timely release of the track, the auspicious hour of release by the right people, and having the right cast are also critical. For 'Kushi' to reach nationwide and get that kind of acclaim, the credit goes to the director Shiva garu, the actors—Vijay garu and Sam garu, the producers—Mythri, the amazing singers and the lyric writer—all these things worked. Lyrics is one of the main factors. Because if you take 'Naa Roja Nuvve', 'Aradya', 'Kushi', 'Osi Pellama', or 'Yedhaki Oka Gaayam'—all these tracks have one thing in common, lyrics that resonate with normal people and not just for those who understand the meaning. The lyrical arrangement is such that even Malayalees will enjoy Telugu music. This was important for me, as I come from a non-Telugu background. I wanted the songs in Telugu to also be appreciated by a multi-linguistic audience.
How did you land your first opportunity in Tollywood?
After the release of 'Hridayam', Mythri's executive producer, Mr. Dinesh contacted me and asked me to fly immediately to Hyderabad. I was informed that the director wanted to meet me, and we needed to compose a song the same day. So I said yes. On reaching, I met with Shiva garu, ADs and the producers. Siva garu narrated the sequence of the first song, 'Naa Roja Nuvve', and the actor's passion for this girl, Aara Begum. You visualise the sequence and know he is referring to director Maniratnam and Rahman sir's music and how he sees her in those songs. I hummed the line, and he liked it. And the rest was history.
How different is it composing music for Malayalam and Telugu movies?
Oh! It is entirely different. I now understand it is critical to know the audience for whom you are composing the music. Though music has the power to transcend boundaries, but for a song to go viral, a film's language is important. For example, the song 'Darshana' in the Malayalam film 'Hridayam' works for everyone because it was written and composed respecting the Malayalam words and sounds. Similarly, in Telugu, when I say 'Naa Roja Nuvve' or 'Aradhya,' the sounds should connect with the language. This ongoing constant analysis happens when I'm composing in Telugu. Now, if the song is in Hindi, for example, 'Ghajini' in Tamil is composed by Harris and the Hindi version was done by Rahman. Both the soundtracks are classics and were released in their respective languages.
Tell us about the jam session for 'Kushi'? The director himself penned the lyrics of the song.
It took one and a half years to bring the song to life. Whenever the shoot happened, I would visit the places. After the shoot in Kashmir, Shiva garu and I would sit and work on a song. He would narrate the situation, and then I would compose the song. I remember composing for 'Osi Pellama' sitting inside a caravan just before the shooting of the climax shot. And the 'Kushi' song, shot in Turkey, was initially meant to be a teaser song. And to get the song right, we went through 25 or 30 iterations.
Are you willing to experiment with new genres after this romantic high?
I think experimentation is a very broad term. Personally, every film coming my way is an experiment. For example, now, I have done 'Kushi', a romantic family drama. The next film I'm working on is 'Hi Nanna'. I have to experiment and create a track different from 'Kushi'. Love is one form of emotion. So, I'm trying to create something different from my previous work. Even 'Darshana' was a love song. 'Na Roja Nuvve' was a love song. I have to think, what different love songs can I create? I have to experiment continuously. But having said that, I'm looking forward to expanding my kind of genre. But it depends on the films that come my way and what I'm comfortable working with. I am reading several scripts, at least one in two days. When reading, I ask myself what kind of contribution I can make to the film, as I want people to remember the music I create.
Who are your favourite musicians?
My favourite musician and greatest inspiration is AR Rahman. When I was in Grade 3, I heard my first song, 'Dil Se', and performed on the school stage. That was my gateway to understanding music.
Are you open to collaborations? Who do you want to join hands with?
I look forward to working with directors who trust me and will entrust me with their stories. I would love to work with directors who have a dreamy vision and want to expand their boundaries and make me push my own boundaries—where we can merge different types of music with Indian music. Just like how it is reflected in 'Hridayam' and 'Kushi' while the essence of the Indian music remains. I've always fused every kind of music.
What are your upcoming projects?
My next yet-to-release film is 'Spark,' a Telugu film with Vikrant Reddy, coming out in November. And then I have 'Hi Nanna' in December. I also have 'Sesham Mikeil Fathima' in Malayalam starring Kalyani Priyadarshan, and another Malayalam flick called 'Philips', and a Sharwanand project directed by Shri Ram Aditya. Other projects are in the pipeline for next year, but it's too early to discuss them.